Hello, nasty. The Beastie Boys have nothing on Neil LaBute, the writer and director who follows his hotly debated 1997 debut, In the Company of Men, in which two corporate yuppies seduce and abandon a deaf girl, with yet another profanely hilarious jolt of shocking sexual manners. Your Friends and Neighbors triumphantly flips the bird to the triumph of the human spirit as LaBute focuses on three guys – rat bastards to a man – with intimacy issues that they chew over in steam rooms, offices and restaurants.
Cary (Jason Patric) practices pillow talk by screwing his mattress and taping his erotic murmurings (“I think you’re a great lay; I mean that. I feel special coming inside you”). Barry (Aaron Eckhart) prefers masturbating over catering to his wife, Mary (Amy Brenneman), and her favored sexual positions (“My wife’s wonderful; she’s just not me. The real fireworks take place when she heads off to the shower”). Then there’s Jerry (Ben Stiller), at home in bed with Terri (Catherine Keener); “Baby! Oh … can you feel it? Huh? You and I are in complete harmony here. … Yeah … ” And Terri’s fed-up response; “Is there any chance you’re gonna shut the fuck up? I mean, ‘Can you feel it?’ No, your thing is nearly in the back of my throat. You think I’m gonna miss that? Let’s just do it. I don’t need the narration, OK?” It’s hardly a surprise that bisexual Terri takes up with Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), an artist’s assistant with a gentle manner and no need – at least at the start of their affair – to chat during sex.
Be warned: The six main characters in Your Friends and Neighbors love to verbalize. And LaBute provides them with torrents of dazzling dialogue, flying in the face of a digitalized, effects-driven Hollywood where the only true horror is the sound of the human voice.
A betrayal of trust sets these shallow creatures in motion, Jerry makes a play for Mary, his best friend’s wife. In a hotel bed, he can’t get it up; she feels humiliated. A round of musical beds ensues, wrecking lives and drawing laughs that stick in the throat.
The actors are flat-out wonderful, biting eagerly into juicy roles. Kinski and Brenneman convey heat roiling under cool exteriors. Keener plays Terri like a gathering storm; it’s her breakout performance. Eckhart, of In the Company of Men, finds the chilling weakness in Barry. And Stiller, having a peak year with There’s Something About Mary and the upcoming Permanent Midnight, exposes the dark fiber of Jerry’s comic vanity.
As the vilest viper, Patric – who co-produced the film – is a marvel of barely contained fury. Check out the steam-room scene, in which the men brag about the best sex they ever had. Cary’s choice is a boy he and three friends gang-raped in high school. Jerry can’t top Cary’s appalling story, even when he tells Barry, “Your wife. She was the best fuck I ever had. How about that?”
How about this movie? Like the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan who try to guess what Tom Hanks’ hard-nosed captain did before the war, audiences may wonder what kind of ogre it took to write Your Friends and Neighbors. Actually, LaBute, 35, is a former Indiana schoolteacher with two children, a therapist wife and a desire not to provide that spoonful of Hollywood sugar to make the medicine go down. A closer look at his film indicates that LaBute is reflecting Restoration comedy in holding up a mirror to societal alienation, as he did in In the Company of Men. When William Wycherley’s The Country Wife opened in 1673, Londoners were reveling in the wanton behavior that came in with Charles II. Wycherley made wicked sport of these bawdy schemers, revealing the emptiness at the culture’s core.
In Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute makes the Restoration parallels overt. Jerry, a drama teacher, is seen in full fop regalia directing and starring in a college production of a Wycherley play. All this implies that LaBute is working in a larger context to hunt universal truths. So does the fact that the film takes place in a nameless city and the characters never refer to each other by name. In other hands, the result could be arty bullshit. With LaBute, you get a filmmaker who cuts to the timeless heart of sexual warfare. His influences extend from the Restoration to David Mamet, but La-Bute achieves a bracing originality by observing human folly as a means to understand rather than condemn. Love or hate his films, LaBute is one of the most challenging filmmakers to emerge in years. A critic wrote of The Country Wife, “Though one of the most profligate of human compositions, it is the elaborate performance of a mind ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints and patient of the toil of polishing.” Your Friends and Neighbors is the electrifying product of a like mind.